The Montreal Canadiens’ regular season has ended, and the focus will now turn to their first-round playoff matchup against the Scotia North Division champions, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The series has already generated a lot of buzz among fans and the media, who have often highlighted that this is the first postseason clash between the two historic franchises since 1979; a full decade before I was born, in the days of stars like Guy Lafleur.
The season series did not fall in the Canadiens’ favour. The Maple Leafs won the series 7-3, giving the Habs a 3-6-1 record against their rivals. Nevertheless, five of the games were decided by one goal, while two others came down to the wire and were sealed with empty-net goals. In the close games, a glaring theme persisted: the game-breaking talent on the Maple Leafs. When they needed a goal, they found one, including in their final regular-season meeting when the Canadiens had a two-goal lead in the second period but relinquished it entirely in roughly 12 minutes.
The Maple Leafs are the clear favorite in this playoff matchup – some have already suggested a sweep – but the Canadiens can maximize their chances by assembling the best posssible lineup. Based on the team’s most recent performance, here is the best starting lineup for Game 1.
Assumptions and Variables
First, a couple of quick notes: my ideal lineup is based on the reports that the injured Canadiens will be ready to play in Game 1. Head coach Dominique Ducharme recently suggested Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher, Shea Weber, and Carey Price should all be available. However, it also appears unlikely that Jonathan Drouin will be available any time soon.
Second: the cap crunch, which forced the Canadiens’ hand in making lineup decisions since the trade deadline, is moot once the playoffs begin. The coaching staff has the option of inserting any player they see fit at any time.
With these factors in mind, we can begin, starting with the forward group.
Caufield or Armia? Staal Out
Hear me out! First, this is the ideal lineup for Game 1 only. After that, the lineup will be subject to post-game debate.
There are no illusions about Cole Caufield’s abilities just ask his teammate, Tyler Toffoli. After all, he played very well in 10 games with the club, with four goals and an assist. He also developed chemistry with Nick Suzuki in the season’s final game. By all means, he is NHL-ready and capable. The issue with playing Caufield in Game 1 is who comes out?
Caufield primarily plays the right side and the Canadiens have plenty of right-wingers. Notably, six wingers, including Caufield, are right-handed shooters (Gallagher, Josh Anderson, Corey Perry, Toffoli, and Joel Armia are the others). However, for stretches of the season, Toffoli and Armia played on the left side, and both players are reliable enough defensively to play on their off-side without being a liability. It is unclear if Caufield can do the same at this level.
In order for Caufield to play in Game 1, Gallagher, Anderson, Perry or Byron would likely have to come out of the lineup. Byron, who shoots left, is also capable of playing either side. His recent play, alongside Jake Evans and Artturi Lehkonen, is exactly what the Canadiens will need against the Maple Leafs: speed and tenacity. He is also a valuable penalty killer (along with Evans, Lehkonen, Armia, and Danault). Besides, would it make sense to put Caufield on a checking line? No.
Perry, on the other hand, is built for playoff hockey. He has grit, experience, poise, and determination, just look at his most recent playoff work in the bubble with the Dallas Stars. He stays in. That leaves Anderson or Gallagher, who are both vital to the Canadiens’ success.
I would choose Armia over Caufield for Game 1 (although I wouldn’t be upset to see Caufield dressed). Armia’s versatility, he can play in any situation, makes him more valuable. The size, puck control, and cycling ability of a line with Armia, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Perry is ideal. The Canadiens generate most of their scoring chances off the rush. This line could create a new dynamic for the Maple Leafs to defend against. If the Canadiens want to win Game 1, and the series, they will need to create offensive threats other than just off the rush, and lately, Armia has been providing that threat.
Eric Staal has not had the impact most were hoping for up to this point. I appreciate second chances, especially considering his experience and pedigree, but for Game 1, I would sit him in favour of Kotkaniemi. Yes, Kotkaniemi has struggled down the stretch, and if he was a full-time winger, we might see him come out of the lineup in favour of Caufield. However, that is not the case, and it will between him and Staal, and Kotkaniemi is faster and plays more physical, which will be essential for setting the tone in Game 1.
Alternatively, with Staal and Kotkaniemi in the lineup, Evans would most likely be the odd man out. Evans played far too well in the final week of the season to be in the press box. Some rest and practice should help Kotkaniemi’s chances. If it was up to me, he’d be in.
Defense: Kulak Should Play
The defence pairings are a little tricky, but the main takeaway is that Brett Kulak should be in the lineup to start this series. On this, I am adamant. After seeing some early positives, the Jon Merrill and Alexander Romanov pairing stumbled in the final games of the season.
Pairing Kulak with Romanov instead would maximize the team’s defensive mobility. The main critique against Romanov is that he can be overly aggressive and lose his positioning. Kulak’s speed would help insulate the rookie in those instances.
Ben Chiarot and Shea Weber did not have the best season together. Much like the rest of the team, they were inconsistent. Both could benefit from a more mobile partner, but they need to be a pair to dish out physical punishment. It’s as simple as that. Joel Edmundson and Jeff Petry should stay together too. This pairing worked as well as any for the Canadiens this season, and there is no reason to change it for now.
No need for a chart here. If Price is healthy, he will get the nod. Jake Allen had a strong season for the Canadiens, especially given their grinding schedule. He was honoured with the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy at the end of the season (given to the player “who played a dominant role during the regular season” as voted on by the media). Either way, it’s still Price’s team, and everyone, including Allen, accepts that. Allen will be ready if called upon, but Price will start the series.
Of course, there will be lineup adjustments throughout the series, which I think will last beyond four games. When you see this lineup you might think to yourself, “I’m glad that guy is not the coach.” We all have our opinions, and chances are high that a player who does not dress in Game 1 will dress in Game 2 or maybe Game 3. But, it starts with Game 1.